Jose Abreu and the baseball ghosts of Cuba

Dennis Grombkowski

Another potential star from the Caribbean island nation making his way to a major league team is an occasion to recall all the players who didn't make it, or weren't allowed to.

If you spend any time at all with the history of the game, pouring over the records of past players, you will experience a curious phenomenon: Players you have never seen become vivid to you, as real and alive as Mike Trout and Bryce Harper even though they have long since retired or even died. You will become a fan of someone you never saw, that perhaps no one now living has seen play, and for whom you have no visual evidence of how they hit, ran, and fielded  beyond a few grainy black and white photos and some numbers on a page. These ghosts will haunt you, because the desire to appreciate them, to see them as they were, can never be satiated.

If there is such a thing as an afterlife then it's possible that that desire is reciprocated by the ghosts themselves. Today, even the most sparsely-attended team might average close to 20,000 fans per game, but until about 30 years ago it was commonplace for the league's lesser lights to average well under 10,000, and to sometimes play before only a few hundred fans. In the days before radio and television, when a game was only witnessed by those in the park, entire careers passed almost entirely unobserved. That goes for many of the all-time greats as well. The day Lou Gehrig hit four home runs in a game against the Philadelphia A's? The reported attendance was only 5,000.

What went for them goes double for those players who spent their careers under a different kinds of shadow, their obscurity a monument to America's obsession with race. Center fielder Cristóbal Torriente was one of those players who left just enough evidence of his passing to evoke unresolvable feelings of loss in those who came later for not having seen him play. Torriente was a stocky guy with a square jaw, officially 5-foot-9 and 190 pounds. Pictures suggest a hint of Hack Wilson about him, though he was a little taller and better proportioned than Hack. Born in Cienfuegos, Cuba in 1893, he first appeared in the Cuban National League in 1912, when he was 18 years old. He played regularly until he was 34. Given that kind of career span, a major leaguer of the period might have left behind a track-record of over 10,000 plate appearances. Instead, Christobal, who was limited to the Negro Leagues because of an objection to a single genetic trait, has left us only 3,381 PAs by which we might try to imagine him.

A left-handed hitter and thrower, Torriente reportedly had good power to all fields despite his lack of stature, as well as surprisingly good speed for one of his build. Paying for Rube Foster's Chicago American Giants in the nascent Negro National League beginning in 1919, he hit, insofar as we can tell from the scant records, .331/.395/.505. According to The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Leagues, in a nine-game 1920 exhibition series against white major leaguers in which Babe Ruth participated, Torriente out-hit the Bambino .378 to .345 and hit three home runs to Ruth's three. This doesn't really tell us anything definitive, certainly not that Torriente was a better player than Ruth, but it's a suggestion that he was at least competitive with the best major leaguers of his day.

Expressed on a 154-game basis, Torriente's typical season might have looked something like this:

























Of course, he didn't get 154 games a year, at least not in any way they kept track of. He got as many games as he could get, anywhere he could get them, in the United States or abroad, and whether they kept a record of the proceedings or not.

In the days before Jackie Robinson broke the color line there was a grey area for Cuban-born players. If they were light-skinned enough that you could pretend that instead of black they were, say, a person of Portuguese extraction with a perpetual tan , they could play. The Washington Senators, father franchise of the Minnesota Twins, squeezed a lot of players in this way. Apparently, Torriente could have passed on this basis but for the fact that his hair gave him away. Think about that: There was a time in America where our concern about keeping baseball racially pure was so keen that we went beyond skin color, in itself ludicrous, to ruling a fellow in or out of acceptable society based on the degree of crimp in his hair.

This is not at all surprising -- our long obsession with miscegenation, with labeling mulattoes and quadroons and octoroons, is a staple of both history and fiction (in stories such as Show Boat, Pinky, and Imitation of Life) -- but is so reminiscent of paranoid racialist societies like Nazi Germany that, no matter how familiar one is with the fact of it, it still difficult to accept that such perversities were once part of the mainstream of American life.

Both before and after integration, Cuba gave the major leagues many great players: Reds right-hander Dolf Luque (check out his great 1923), the multi-dimensional gamer Minnie Minoso (who should be in the Hall of Fame), the cigar-chomping artiste of the mound Luis Tiant (ditto), Tony Oliva, and Tony Perez among them. More recently, Cuban-born players such as Orlando Hernandez, Aroldis Chapman, Jose Iglesias, Yoenis Cespedes, Jose Fernandez, and Yasiel Puig have made their mark on these shores. But we could have had so much more -- Martin Dihigo, Jose Mendez, Pablo "Champion" Mesa, Alejandro Oms, and uncountable others whose names we will never know and whose amazing performances not even the dedicated few hundred fans who came to watch the dead-end Browns play the destitute Red Sox on any given day in 1927 got to see.

Torriente liked to drink, made a habit of seeing the city lights wink out at dawn, and so his career came to an earlier end than it might have had he been more temperate. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2006, which is a good gesture insofar as the completeness of the museum is concerned but one that came far too late for Torriente to acknowledge; he had passed away of some combination of tuberculosis and alcoholism in 1938, just a handful of years after his enforced retirement.

On Thursday, the Chicago White Sox signed Cuban defector Jose Abreu, a power-hitting first baseman, to a six-year, $68 million contract. Looking at his picture, I do not know whether he would have qualified under the old Cuban exception or, like Torriente he would have been excluded. I do not care to verse myself in the kind of thinking necessary to make such an evaluation, alien as it is to reason, fairness, and human decency. I leave that judgment to you, though I hope you won't care enough to make it.

As with any signing, the White Sox have taken on some risk. That's a story for another day, a different kind of baseball story. What kind of player Abreu will be, what he will mean to the White Sox franchise are questions that, for now, I will leave to others to answer. Whether he succeeds or fails is something that none of us can know for certain. However, there is one thing I know with an unshakeable confidence: Regardless of how Abreu plays, no one will dare check under his cap to see if his hair conforms to some farcical straitened (and straightened) standard before they let him pick up a bat. For all the chaos and disharmony of our times, we live in a better, kinder, more sensible country than that.

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